Written by Bob, guest blogger and adoptee
There were two things which my adoptive mother told me when I was young that really stood out to me. The first was when I was very young, and she told me that there was no Santa Claus. This was devastating news, but I adjusted fairly readily once I knew that I was still getting presents, just not from Santa. The other was when I was eleven, and my adoptive mother told me that I was adopted. This news was difficult for me to process, and, unlike the news re Santa, the effects have lingered with me, to varying degrees, throughout my life.
Growing Up on the Farm
While growing up as an only child on a farm in northern Illinois, my immediate and extended families were comprised of good people, largely farmers and blue collar workers of German ancestry, most all of whom with a high school education. I always had the feeling that I was different from them, and didn’t totally fit in. Plus, I never planned to be a farmer. Rather, I somehow knew, from an early age, that I would someday go to college. All that said, I pretty much accepted these feelings of being different, and didn’t really dwell on them. Until, that is, I received some news… I remember the day vividly. My adoptive mother and I were out running errands and, for some reason, I asked her whether I had been adopted. Her reply was a bit halting, but, eventually, she said that I had not been. I accepted that, but, when we returned home, she said that she needed to talk to me. With a very serious look on her face, my adoptive mother told me that, contrary to what she had told me earlier, yes, I had been adopted. To be honest, the news hit me like a lightning bolt. My immediate thought was that now my sense of feeling different from other family members made sense. The next day, Sunday, our family went to church as usual, and I told my friends what I had learned. You can probably imagine a bunch of eleven year old boys processing that information, and, after a brief deliberation, coming to the conclusion that my birth mother was probably a “disreputable” fifteen year old girl who, shamefully, had gotten pregnant, and who obviously had to put me up for adoption. Not quite true, but more on that later…
My adoptive parents have both passed away. They were good people, who gave me a good life and loved me very much, as I did them. They understood that I was different from them, that I didn’t have the “farming gene” in me, and they accepted that. My adoptive father and I were very different people, in many respects. Especially when I was younger, that could cause some problems between us, at times. However, once I came to understand that he was who he was, and I was who I was, and I accepted that fact, it made things easier. As the years went by, he and I developed, and maintained, a close relationship, and I am grateful that he had a good, long life. He lived to be 97. My adoptive mother and I had a real bond. It is not an exaggeration to say that her eyes lit up whenever she saw me. I have always told people that she was my biggest fan. She died eighteen years ago. I can still see her smile. I miss her to this day. I will be forever grateful that I, as an adoptee, was able to bring so much joy to my adoptive parents, the ones who took me in when I had no one else.
Learning About my Origins
Over the years, my adoptive mother had given me bits and pieces of information regarding my adoption. My adoptive father really didn’t feel comfortable talking about the subject in those days, although that changed in later years. One of the first things I learned was that I had been adopted the day before Mother’s Day in 1950, and was baptized the next day, on Mother’s Day. I had been in an orphanage in Addison, Illinois, for three and one-half months, after my birth in January of that year. My adoptive mother gave me a photo of myself, which was taken in the orphanage in April of 1950, that is almost Dickensian in nature. It shows me lying alone on what looks to be a table of some sort in a darkened room, looking up at the camera. It was as if I had been totally abandoned. However, I also have some other photos, taken later, after my adoption, on the day I was baptized. Photos of new family members of mine taken with me. Happy faces all around, with so many different people holding me and smiling. To this day, I am grateful that so many people were so very happy to make me one of their own. It warms my heart, and always will.
As time went by, I was given some additional information, regarding such things as my birth mother’s age when I was born, about her ancestry being Swedish, Hessian (German) and English, and about the fact that she was a law student when she had me (yes, I am also a lawyer). I also learned her full name, along with the name I was originally given by her, as well as the location where she had signed my relinquishment papers. As I reached my twenties, I had become more and more unsettled about my “past”, and felt an increasing need to know more about “who I was”(a feeling common among adoptees). I finally reached the point where I had to do something about it. I knew that my birth mother had signed my relinquishment papers in a large Midwestern city, and, as I mentioned, I knew her name. So, perhaps naively, I figured that I might be able to find some information about her there. So, with my wife and seven month old daughter in tow, we flew to the city where the relinquishment papers had been signed. Long story short, and much to my amazement, I was able to locate my birth mother within two days. I learned that she was an attorney who was actually practicing relatively close by, and I decided that the best thing to do would be to drop in to see her at her law office, unannounced. That way, she would not be given the opportunity to decline to see me. When I arrived at her office, I knocked on the door and she asked me to come in. As soon as I saw her, I noticed the resemblance between the two of us immediately. It was inescapable, and a bit bracing to finally see someone who looked like me. I had decided that the first “identifying” question I would ask her was whether the date of January 23, 1950 (my birthdate) meant anything to her. As soon as I asked her that question, she immediately realized who I was. The person who had been her newborn son 27 years earlier was now standing before her. There was no denying it. She asked whether I had been well taken care of, and I assured her that I had been. Interestingly, she then asked whether I had been a good student. Fortunately for me, I guess, I was able to tell her that I was in my third year of law school. I then asked her the question which all adoptees want to ask, which was why she had given me up. Her answer: “You were inconvenient”. That, frankly was a bit tough to take, as one might expect. As the years have gone by, though, I have come to realize that, in saying that, she was reflecting on the feelings which she had at the time she had given me up, and that she was now looking back at that time, wistfully and sadly.
Our conversation proceeded from there, for over two hours. She wept at least half the time. She told me that, after she had had me, she had gotten married to a wonderful man, and together they had four children. She also gave me some information regarding my birth father. She said that he was also an attorney, was of Irish ancestry and had been a football star at a Big Ten University (they were both students there when they met). Frankly, a good part of our conversation seems like a dream now. Emotions were running high, as one would imagine. I honestly do not recall how we left things. A few weeks later, though, I sent her a Mother’s Day card. She returned it to me, and asked me not to contact her again. Can’t say I saw that one coming. Nonetheless, eight years later, she did agree to see me again, making clear that it would be the final time. Candidly, that meeting, and our conversation during it, was less than remarkable. Perhaps such was the case because she had time to prepare for seeing me this time. Still, when she and I parted, she said, sincerely and with a hug, “Be a good boy.” I have not seen her again. We have talked a few times since then, though. She has continued to be quite guarded and protective of her privacy, and is not fond of looking back. However, that said, it is, nonetheless, fair to say that she has warmed a bit as the years have gone by. Recently, she asked me to send her some photos of my family and me, which I did, and she said that she enjoyed receiving them and seeing them. She has told me how much she has enjoyed talking to me, and how very happy she is to know that I have had a good life.
As for my birth father, I located him two years after I met my birth mother. I spoke with him over the phone, and identified myself. He did not seem shocked to hear from me. In fact, he told me that he always felt that he would hear from me someday. I do know, though that, after having spoken to me, he did some investigatory work to confirm that I was who I said that I was. In the end, my identity was, indeed, confirmed to his satisfaction, and he acknowledged that, yes, I was his birth son. I ended up having a fairly good relationship with him, and got together with him from time to time over the next twelve years. He was always very gracious, and when I told him that I appreciated that fact, he told me that it was the least he could do for me. When I asked him why he did not marry my birth mother (she had wanted them to get married), he said that there were religious differences. In addition, perhaps most importantly, he just wasn’t ready. Sadly, he died suddenly twenty-three years ago, when he was in his 60s. It should be pointed out that many males on both sides of my birth families tend to die somewhat early, a rather sobering reality for me.
My Family Tree
About eight years ago, I finally decided that I wanted to track down at least some of my half-brothers and sisters. Ironically, although I was raised as an only child, I discovered that, combining both sides of my families, I had thirteen half-brothers and sisters. I have contacted over half of them. Their responses have varied. Some refuse to believe that I exist, some do not feel comfortable having a relationship with me and others have been extremely gracious, and I have forged a relationship with them. Those with whom I have developed a relationship are very special to me, and their kindness means very much. They have truly helped fill a void in my life. It is my hope that I have added something positive to their lives, as well. It is very important for me to point out, though, that the varied reactions of my half-brothers and sisters have been very understandable. None of these people had expected me to suddenly appear in their lives, out of nowhere.
What I’ve Learned as an Adoptee
The question is, then, what have I learned through all of this? I will say that finding out about my birth family has had a very significant impact on my life. There are feelings adoptees have, that non-adoptees can have a hard time relating to, because they take certain things for granted. Things such as “Does anyone else look like me? Is anyone else like me?” It was those feelings of uncertainty that finally led me to decide to affirmatively launch my quest to find my birth mother, and, ultimately, the remainder of my birth family members. Once I did find my birth mother, and saw the resemblance to me, a certain feeling of calm settled over me. That said, in all the years since, I have continued searching for more information, and have succeeded in learning more about my ancestors. Co-incidences in what I have learned abound. A principal, and inescapable, one is the plethora of lawyers among my ancestors and living relatives. As I mentioned earlier, my adoptive family consisted mainly of farmers. Yet, before I had known anything about my past, I, too, had decided to become a lawyer. Relatedly, from the time I was very young, I knew that I would someday go to college, even though no one in my adoptive family had done so. Furthermore, I had always been enamored with Big 10 college football, and it turned out that my birth father had been a star for a Big 10 team. I have been told that I share many traits with both sides of my birth families, something I had actually discerned myself. I have visited the graves of countless ancestors, including gravesites in New York, Illinois and in Minnesota. Many of my ancestors arrived in America during the 1600s and 1700s, as well as during the 1800s. They came from Germany, England, Scotland, Sweden and Ireland. I have ancestors who fought in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I and World War II. I have always been a history buff, and, frankly, this news blew me away. I have also learned that I am a direct descendant of Robert the Bruce (remember “Braveheart”?), I am descended from various Viking kings and am a distant cousin of Princess Diana. The list of things I have seen, done, learned and experienced during my search goes on and on…
Throughout all this, though, somewhat paradoxically, while I feel that a type of connection has ben established with the people and places of my past, I have come to realize that it is not a connection which feels complete. I have a foot in the camps of both my birth mother’s and my birth father’s families, but two feet in neither. I still feel separate and apart in many ways. My feelings are complex. They are difficult to explain. I am continuing to sort things out.
All that said, it has certainly been quite a journey for me. I have learned that I am truly the sum of my life experiences. All of them. In becoming who I am, I have taken many things from how I was raised, but, yet, there are inescapable genetically transmitted components, as well. Part of me is still that farm boy from Illinois, and part of me is the attorney from Washington, DC. The restless feelings I have always had have been lessened, but have not been silenced. Perhaps that is just the nature of the situation, and of me.
A Mother’s Love
But, there is something else that I have discovered, which is also very important. Throughout the years, in terms of my adoption and my search, I was very much focused on myself. Finding out who I was, learning my identity, being very inner-directed and, perhaps, self-absorbed. I believe that, given the circumstances, such feelings are understandable. However, over the years, as I have learned more and thought more about things that happened, my perspective has changed. I have thought more about my birth mother and her situation, about her wanting to marry my birth father and have the three of us be a family, but being turned away by him. She was then faced with the very difficult decision of what to do about me. I would say that a common theme among adoptees is wondering whether their birth mother loved them. Because of things which I have learned, including from reading a letter which my birth father gave me which he’d received two days after I was born, wherein she said how much she loved me, and how much she hated having to leave me, along with things she mentioned in some notes I have received from her over the past few years, I no longer doubt her love for me. The tears she shed when she saw me in her office when I was twenty-seven were real. In placing me for adoption, she did what she felt she had to do. Although I may have been “inconvenient,” she has clearly never forgotten me. I have also come to appreciate more the fact that, in those days, unwed mothers were not looked on favorably. My birth mother’s mother (my birth grandmother) put my birth mother on a train departing from the city in which she lived, which was headed for Chicago, where I was born in Booth Memorial Hospital, a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers located there. Shortly after she had me, she returned, silently and alone, to her home, many miles away. There were no smiles or happy faces to greet her. My existence was never discussed again. My birth mother’s father (my birth grandfather) was never told that he had a grandson. She carried that burden, alone, all those years, once telling me that she’d feared that God would punish her for having given me up by never blessing her with another son. (I also want to add here that her, and my, experience with the Salvation Army has made a tremendous impression on me. I think the world of that organization, and have helped support them, done some work for them and volunteered for them, all out of a sense of gratitude for having taken in my mother and me when we had no one else to turn to). The result of all this is that I have turned the attention from myself to my birth mother and her difficulties. My heart goes out to her for all she went through.
Likewise, though, my focus has also turned increasingly to my adoptive mother, my true “mom.” The one who raised me, who instilled values in me. A wonderful woman, who never had a bad word for anyone. Someone who always believed in me. I miss her very much.
I think of both of these special women when I tell people, “There is nothing like a mom.” The story is no longer about just me, it is about these two very special women, as well. For birth mothers, the child you placed for adoption will always think about you, and will always wonder ‘why?’ and whether you loved him or her. That is just how it is. Please, though, rest assured, that, somewhere deep inside, that child will always love you. And, regarding adoptive mothers, if your child feels a need to look for their identity by searching for their birth mother, please know that they know who “mom” really is. It is you. They will always love you for what you have done for them, and for who you are.
To My Fellow Adoptees
In closing, what I would like to tell adoptees is to follow your heart in terms of your adoption experience. Some adoptees feel no need to delve into their past. Others, like me, want to find out what happened. If you do go on your search, you may be welcomed by your birth families or, perhaps, you won’t be. And, some of the things you learn may be difficult to hear and to accept. You may be met with open doors, open arms and open hearts, or doors and hearts may be closed to you. It is not always a storybook ending. Nonetheless, for many of us, the need to find out who we are is something that we have to address. There is a churning and yearning inside us. If you feel the need, and you recognize that things may work out well, or perhaps not, have the courage to go forward. Finding out more about who you are may not extinguish the restlessness in your soul, but it can go a long way to helping calm it.
Does Bob's story resonate with you? If you want to connect with Bob, contact NCFA Communications Manager Julie Claiborn.
Are you inspired to share your own story? Submit a draft of your story here.